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The Nigerian National Assembly


 National Assembly

National Assembly

I AM neither a lawyer nor a constitutionalist. What I would really like to be is a clown to make you laugh and take away some of the heavy burden of success which I see lies on your several eminent shoulders. I see the burden because many of you have shoulders that are stooping or hunching from carrying heavy responsibilities. If I were a clown, I would have a big red tomato on my nose, my face painted white or pink, my lips painted red and wide, and my shoes will be ridiculously oversized. I know that in a clown’s outfit, I would not need to put a pillow to my stomach because, as you can all see my stomach, it is big enough! But if I were such a clown none of you would be here. Rotary Club is full of serious people who have lofty principles aimed at the benefit of humanity and you would have no truck with a clown.

It is this aspect of your high moral commitment and principles, which make me wonder why I am here at all. So to my caveats – if I fail to deliver to your satisfaction, please do not blame me. I never sought the distinction. But, I must say, lurking somewhere amongst you, is a masochist!

I found it exceedingly difficult to find a topic, which would suit this audience. So I decided to speak about the National Assembly, which has as you know, some clowns but many serious and high-minded people.
National Assemblies, the world over tend to be clubby. They are fierce protectors of their interests. They make deals and rules, which baffle the electorate. A member of the National Assembly develops a swagger which can only come from the confidence of being untouchable, extremely well paid and can threaten the executive either by impeaching the executive or threatening to do so. Some National Assembly rules are peculiar, for example, the filibuster rule in the United States Senate where a senator may speak as long as he or she wishes until the time allotted to a particular issue is exhausted and therefore that matter cannot be passed because there is no more time to ask for a division of the House on that particular issue. National Assemblies can be violent as we have often seen in Italy, Portugal, Philippines, Korea, Japan, India etc and, of course, Nigeria. But none of these legislative Houses has been as peculiar as the National Assembly of Nigeria.

Our constitution, as any constitution, is not perfect but one thing it is clear about is that, if elected on the platform of one party, such a member cannot change his or her party and join another party without going for re- election to get a fresh mandate. This is a simple enough provision and does not need a Lord Denning to interpret it. Why is the provision not obeyed in Nigeria? It is the triumph of politics over sanity and law.

Let’s us pause a little to find out why this provision was put in our constitution. Briefly told, the 1954 election in Western Nigeria had Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo as two leading members among other leaders. The story is that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe had the pledge of a majority in the House and he thought he would be the premier.

Chief Awolowo and Chief S. L. Akintola, unknown to Dr. Azikiwe, had convinced many who had pledged to be with Dr. Azikiwe to change sides over night. On resumption of the Western House of Assembly in the morning, many of Dr. Azikiwe’s supposed followers “crossed carpet” to the Action Group and the Governor was obliged to ask Chief Awolowo to form the Government. There are variations of this story but that should not delay us. Dr. Azikiwe could have stayed in the West as leader of the Opposition. He did not. He tried to contest in Lagos for the House of Representative; he could not. He returned to the East, where Prof. Eyo Ita was leader/Premier and had him removed. Dr. Azikiwe became premier.
The details of this narrative varies with who is telling it but the facts are that people changed allegiance in the West, Zik felt frustrated, left for the East, and got a minority man, Prof. Eyo Ita, removed and had himself installed as Premier.

Our constitution of 1999 (Section 109) to forestall shenanigans of this type unequivocably demanded that if an elected member of one party wishes to leave that party, he must seek a fresh mandate under the auspices of this newly preferred party. It has never happened. Why? Maybe because of the weakness of the political structures and because parties lack discipline but largely because of selfish party or personal interests. The failure to enforce this provision of the Constitution is one of the main reasons for much of the political instability since 1999.

After an election, all members must get an INEC certificate that shows what office, which constituency and under which party they have won the election – from the President down to the members of the National Assembly and State Assemblies. Without that certificate no elected official can be sworn into office. The certificate is accepted by the Clerks of the Houses, and in the case of Governors and the President by the highest judicial officer. During the last sixteen years we have had members of the Houses and Governors change parties with no consequence (except in one case). Usually, people tend to leave the party that has lost the election for the winning party. And here lies the rub. The winning party, whose member is the Speaker of the House of Representatives or President of the Senate would refuse to declare the seat of the errant member vacant: so INEC says it cannot conduct an election except the seat is vacant. There have been Governors elected on the platform of one party who have abandoned that party to join another.

To me this seems like bigamy (not that that worries many Nigerians but it should); if you are married in court, you may not marry another wife, unless you secure a divorce. Lets not push that analogy too far; it may get me into hot waters! The INEC certificate is the authorising document; it states the party and the office of the winner of the election. The constitution ties the winner to his party. If he leaves the party, why should INEC not withdraw their certificate and organize another election? This seems to me the only sensible alternative to the chicanery of the politicians. How can a State vote for a Governor who belongs to a party, wake up one morning to find that the Governor has left the party for a party the electorate saw and rejected at the election? Where is the legitimacy of such a Governor? INEC should withdraw the certificate of such a Governor and prepare for a fresh election. The provision for an interregnum should kick in, in such circumstances – the Speaker takes over as acting Governor pending elections within three months. The Governor must vacate Government House, all the perquisites of office until he, if he can, wins a fresh mandate. Only then would all know that legitimacy comes with the votes of the people and not something inherent in the office holder.

Where a member of the National Assembly crossed carpet and moved to join another party, why, some people ask, can his original party not go to court to declare his seat vacant? I do not think this is necessary because the member, by his own action, has made the seat vacant by recanting from his original party. The consequences should automatically follow.

A more difficult question is whether the party can expel a member of the National Assembly for anti party activities and thus force a new election: this is a difficult case although not impossible to solve. Another difficult scenario is what happens if there is a schism in the party and it breaks up into factions. Would the Governor, for example, lose his mandate if he supports the losing side in the party’s break – up?

Let’s quickly dispose of three other issues that concern the National Assembly. How much do they earn? Why such a simple question should be shrouded in secrecy is an eloquent statement of how the members of the National Assembly hold the public. There are wild speculations on their salaries, allowances, and other perquisites. Whatever the true figures are they belong to the public domain. Refusal to publish them breaches the fundamental principle that they are our representatives, our servants who owe a duty of care and absolute transparency to those who elected them. It is only a masters’ salary that is not known to the servant. If sovereignty in a democracy lies with the electorate then this charade must stop. Publish the salaries and allowances and other conditions of service in simple straightforward, transparent uncomplicated format.

I believe that being a member of the House is not a full time job and the members should be paid sitting allowance only. All of them have other jobs or should have other jobs except the Speaker and the President of the Senate. The intention of the writers of the constitution never once averted to memberships being a full time job.

Finally a N55 billion Institute of Legislative Studies at this time, with our experience, is an exercise of profligacy and an absence of a sense of priority, proportion and relevancy. What legislative studies would such an institute do – certainly not studies about our own legislative bodies who after four years of dittering and passing a few bills, woke up towards the end of its tenure and prorogation, in two or three days, passed over 40 bills!

• Dr. Cole (OFR) delivered this address to Rotary Club of Lagos on Feburary 23, 2016.

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